What works in education around the world?

This report from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and the TIMSS PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College presents data from 9-10 year-old pupils in 34 countries who took both the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) assessments in 2011. Home environment information was also available because the PIRLS assessment includes a parent questionnaire. In total over 180,000 children, 170,000 parents, 14,000 teachers, and 6,000 school leaders participated in these two studies worldwide.

According to the authors, their analyses of the data suggest that, across countries, there are a number of school and home factors that can positively affect achievement in reading, mathematics, and science at the Year 5 level. For example, they say that when parents engage children in early literacy activities, it can help children develop both literacy and numeracy skills. The early literacy activities they mention include reading books, telling stories, singing songs, playing with alphabet toys, talking about things you’ve done or have read, playing word games, writing letters or words, and reading aloud signs and labels.

Source: TIMSS and PIRLS 2011: Relationships Among Reading, Mathematics, and Science Achievement at the Fourth Grade—Implications for Early Learning (2013), TIMSS PIRLS International Study Center.

Reading for pleasure increases cognitive progress

A new working paper from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies sets out to examine socio-economic inequalities in cognitive test scores at age 16. In particular, the authors were interested in whether reading for pleasure was linked to cognitive progress.

The study found that children who read for pleasure at the ages of 10 and 16 made more progress in maths, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read, even after controlling for parental social background and parents’ own reading behaviour. The largest gains were for vocabulary. From a policy perspective, the authors say this strongly supports the need to support and encourage children’s reading in their leisure time.

The research also showed that parents’ education was far more important for children’s performance in cognitive tests than parents’ economic resources. The home reading culture, including reading to the child, reading books and newspapers, and having problems with reading, was also significantly linked to children’s test scores. This had a relatively strong role in mediating the influence of parents’ education, and a smaller role in mediating parents’ material resources.

The study used data on a sample of around 6,000 young people being followed as part of the 1970 British Cohort Study and the scores from maths, vocabulary, and spelling tests taken when they were aged 16.

Source: Social Inequalities in Cognitive Scores at Age 16: The Role of Reading (2013), Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Maternal supportiveness boosts school readiness

A new article in Early Childhood Research Quarterly investigates two aspects of children’s school readiness: interest in new cognitive tasks and persistence in task completion. The study examined these two behaviours at ages one, two, and three in a large multi-site sample, using data on 1,771 low-income children taken from the US Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. The authors looked at whether interest and persistence are linked to academic skills at school entry, and found that children’s interest and persistence at age three predicted academic achievement at age five.

The article also explored the impact of parenting on these behaviours. During videotaped play sessions, mothers were rated on scales of sensitivity (taking the child’s perspective, accurate perception of the child’s signals, prompt and appropriate responses to these signals), and stimulation of cognitive development (teaching or actively trying to expand the child’s abilities). The authors found that maternal supportiveness predicted higher levels of interest and persistence between the ages of one and three, with both behaviours more responsive to parenting between ages one and two than two and three.

Children from underprivileged backgrounds generally enter school lagging behind their peers on a range of indicators. The article concludes that although relatively little attention has been paid to the early development of these particular learning behaviours – interest and persistence – they might prove worthy of intervention before school entry, particularly when children are aged one

Source: Longitudinal Associations Among Interest, Persistence, Supportive Parenting, and Achievement in Early Childhood (2013), Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(4).

Children should get active, and stay that way, to improve later cognitive function

Taking part in leisure time physical activity (LTPA) is positively associated with cognitive functioning in the mid-adult years, with the greatest benefits for those people who participate in lifelong (both childhood and adult), intensive LTPA.

In an article published in Psychological Medicine, researchers from King’s College London estimated the association between different LTPA parameters from 11 to 50 years and cognitive functioning in late mid-adulthood. They used data from the UK National Child Development Study (NCDS), a cohort study of children born in 1958, with LTPA data collected from questionnaires.

Source: Leisure-time Physical Activity Over the Life Course and Cognitive Functioning in Late Mid-adult Years: A Cohort-based Investigation (2013),Psychological Medicine, (online, March 2013).

GCSE shake-up: What’s the evidence?

The Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment has conducted an analysis of research relevant to the government’s proposals to change GCSEs.Their report considers issues specific to the examinations themselves as well as the wider context.

The headline question is perhaps “are exams getting easier?” The authors found that overall, research evidence does not point to a decline in the cognitive demand of examination questions, and that modular assessment has not been found to be consistently easier than end-of-course examinations. In fact, they found that high-stakes end-of-course examinations produce negative effects on teaching and learning.

In terms of whether there is a need for change, international test scores show that England does not compare poorly to other countries and that test scores show no decline. However, England does have a particularly wide spread between the lowest and highest achievers. This highlights, they say, the need for provision for low-achieving students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds in England to be improved.

Source: Research Evidence Relating to Proposals for Reform of the GCSE (2013), Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment.

Neuromyths in education

Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in “neuromyths” – misconceptions about neuroscience research in education.

A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that teachers who are interested in the application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Researchers tested 242 teachers in the UK and the Netherlands with an interest in the neuroscience of learning, using an online survey with 32 statements about the brain and its influence on learning, of which 15 were neuromyths.

On average, the teachers believed 49 per cent of the neuromyths, particularly those related to commercialised education programmes like Brain Gym. One of the most commonly believed myths was that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (eg, auditory, visual, kinesthetic)”, which was said to be correct by over 80 per cent of teachers in the study.

Although loosely based on scientific fact, these neuromyths may have adverse effects on educational practice. The researchers conclude that there is a need for better interdisciplinary communication to reduce misunderstandings and create successful collaborations between neuroscience and education.

Source: Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers (2012), Frontiers in Psychology